Sideways and Up

Sideways and Up

Copyright 2002, Traffic World, Inc.

Rowena Gates has made a profession of being an entrepreneur. Today she is the president and CEO of Aviarc Corp., a document management company for world trade.

Gates started Aviarc in early 2000. Her customers are importers, exporters and logistics companies. Regulatory responses to Sept. 11, 2001, including the U.S. Customs Service's new rule requiring carriers and nonvessel-operating common carriers to send shipment information to customs 24 hours before sailing from a foreign port to the United States, has created an immediate demand for services such as those provided by Aviarc, she said.

But Gates' entrepreneurial career did not begin with Aviarc. She started off in consulting, forming international partnerships. One of the companies to which Gates offered consulting services invited her to be a co-founder in her first company in 1995. That company was called ITM, which later changed its name to nPassage. nPassage, a collaborative Internet-based transportation management system, then became part of ShipLogix, another Internet-based collaborative transportation solution provider, in July 2001.

After nPassage, Gates started a company involved in imaging technology "and that became part of a $300 million public company and the reason to get the imaging angle for what I am doing now," she said.

Gates did not know she was destined to be an entrepreneur. In fact, she wanted to be a university professor. "And I used to teach high school," she said. "I didn't want to move to the cities where there were good jobs at universities. So I stayed in Seattle and went sideways into business."

Gates has a doctorate in international strategic alliances in the supply chain from the University of Washington. She has leveraged in her work what she has learned from her degree, she said. "That supply-chain piece was the foundation for my career," said Gates. And how to form alliances was another handy skill from the degree, she said.

What type of personality do you need to be an entrepreneur? It might not be the personality you think, said Gates. "Contrary to what most people think of, I see myself as being risk-averse. I calculate risk carefully. Managing risk is a big focus for me," she said.

A second personality trait Gates believes is invaluable for success is enjoying and valuing people. "A lot of entrepreneurship is centered around people. It is a critical part of it. Working with other people is the most important skill," she said.

And to be successful, you need to have the ability to stick with it, said Gates. Tenacity is a core part of entrepreneurial success, she said.

What skills do you need? You have to be a switch hitter, to be able to "cover a lot of bases even if it is not your sweet spot. That is true of a lot of early people in the company. I've served the role of all the C-level functions. It is essential to take on all those roles to a certain degree," said Gates.

No matter how prepared you are, you will make mistakes. Gates has "made just about every mistake" with her startups, she said. With nPassage, she learned that getting the right people into the company to advise you is key. "Unless that is your sweet spot, get professional help, because for a lot of entrepreneurs, evaluating people is not part of their background," she said.

Knowing who to go to and how to raise funds is another important skill, said Gates. More important is to have tight financial controls. "Keeping things squeaky clean makes life so much easier. It is only a quarter as much work to do it right the first time," she said.

And "a lot of it is knowing what not to do," she said.

Success is dependent on your passion for what you do and the type of person you are, not your education, said Gates. "You have to get in and learn it all anyway," she said. "The things you learn in school are only a small part." It is more important to have solid domain expertise or creativity, than, say, an MBA, she said.

Those who will succeed are those who have been taught to think, who are creative and tenacious, said Gates. "The ability to respond to a given situation is critical," she said. And Gates believes you can be an entrepreneur at any age as long as you have a passion for what you are doing.

But you still need to know the industry and the needs of your customers. "What is the painful problem? Let customers define the solution for it. That is what we did at Aviarc, not what we did at nPassage. There is a profound difference. That is the biggest lesson I learned at nPassage. Be customer-driven versus having a technology or idea vision," said Gates. "I am very biased in that direction. It was a huge lesson."

Developing a business case for your company needs to be done before you start your entrepreneurship, said Gates. That will determine whether or not you can or should even start the company, she said. And it will be used to go to investors for funding, she said.

Your business should solve an immediate demand in the marketplace, said Gates. Plus it should be something that can be used easily by your customers and achieve an immediate benefit for them, she said. "It has to be something that fits with current work processes. You can't afford to change the world," she said.

It should not be something that requires large numbers of entities to sign on for your system to achieve value for customers, said Gates. "Those projects have a huge getting-going cost," she said. You should be able to obtain value for your customers even if they are the only ones using your solutions, she said. "Start with what is easy," she said.